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James T. KeaneMarch 26, 2024
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It is told that in 1949, the British magazine The New Statesman held a snarky literary contest where the winner would be whoever could best parody the writing style of the famous novelist Graham Greene. Everyone was confused and then bemused when the runner-up, who had written under a pseudonym, turned out to be…Graham Greene. Who won? No one cares.

It is also told that a letter to the editor, supposedly penned by Martin Amis once appeared in the British magazine Private Eye. Amis, who hated Private Eye (which had once given him the sobriquet of “Smarty Anus”), wrote his own letter in response. “I don’t write like that,” Amis pointed out. “I write like this.”

So too is it told that two California bartenders once created a contest called “The International Imitation Hemingway Competition,” known more colloquially as “The Bad Hemingway Contest.” The winner was whoever—you guessed it—wrote the best “really good page of really bad Hemingway.” Started as something of a joke, the contest ran for decades, and the titles of winners are themselves a treat, including “The Old Man and the Flea” and “Big Too-Hardened Liver.”

Ernest Hemingway himself would probably not have approved. It wasn’t just rank amateurs who parodied him during his life, after all; some of the best took their shot (E. B. White savaged him in The New Yorker in 1950 with his story “Across the Street and into the Grill”). Hemingway once told his biographer A. E. Hotchner that “the step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal.”

He was wrong. I once spent 45 minutes in a cab with three other writers, conjuring up parodies of Mary Oliver, and it remains a treasured moment in my one wild and precious life.

For most of its history, America was a bit too staid to stoop to parody. Let us not forget that our literary editor in 1934 described James Joyce’s prose as “scummy, scrofulous, putrid, like excrement of the mind.” His own opinion on writing? “Each word is a test by which the writer is judged.” It’s safe to say most of our editors thought writing was no joking matter. But on two occasions—the first in 1958, the second in 1977—the temptation to have a little fun proved too powerful to resist.

The 1958 contribution was from Joel Wells, an accomplished author and the editor of The Critic, an edgy Catholic magazine out of Chicago. In “Death of a Dog,” Wells imagined how a brief news story (“ITEM: A dog was struck and killed by a car at 9:30 last night on the highway north of town, an unidentified boy reported to the police this morning.”) would be handled by four authors: Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Francois Mauriac.

(I know, I know. You’re wondering how Mauriac made the list. Americans don’t read him as much anymore, but in 1958, Mauriac might well have been considered the primus inter pares of those heavyweights. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1952, and among his many novels, Viper’s Tangle still slaps. And you’re kicked out of the haunted Catholic club if you’ve never had a Mauriac phase.)

Now, back to that dead dog. How would Hemingway treat our deceased friend? “He was an old dog, and he had not chased a car for four years. But he would chase a car tonight and the boy would see him and know that he was not afraid,” Wells started. He finished with a just-so Big Papa touch: “He did not run again and the boy got another pup. For four years he sat in the afternoon dust under the porch and listened to the applause of brakes on the highway. Tonight they would squeal for him.”

How about Evelyn Waugh? Wells was savage:

A promising petrol tanker was just settling into his sights when Lady Distraught gave one of her well-known screams and something struck the car’s right fender with a thud. “Clement Attlee!” swore His Lordship, sure that he had run up against one of those rural American types whose clothing is covered over with copper rivets and buttons, “that’s bound to have marred the finish.”

Wells had Graham Greene’s number, too:

Sweat oozed over his lashes into his eyes and the station-yard began to shimmer through the doorway like the high-noon prospect of an English 317 country pond. Something white was moving across its surface. Slender and white: a swan? The swan stopped in the doorway surrounded by a salty nimbus.
“You killed him,” the boy said. “You were drunk and you ran over him but you didn’t have to stop because you are the police.”

Nineteen years later, longtime America editor Richard A. Blake, S.J., tried a similar thought experiment with “A Pail of Water.” How would the story of Jack and Jill be covered in Catholic circles? Blake had a larger field to assay in those days, though some of the stalwarts he spoofed remain: Commonweal. The Wanderer. National Catholic Reporter. He saved his sharpest barbs for the famous priest, sociologist and novelist Andrew Greeley (“The tragedy of Jack and Jill could have been avoided if the liberals, intellectuals and bishops had listened to me, period.”) and for, of course, America itself.

How would The Wanderer cover Jack and Jill’s unfortunate tumble down the hill?

The tragic events of the past few days have once more pointed out the blatant promiscuity that arose in the church after the collapse of morality in the wake of Vatican II. No doubt the so-called theologians and self-styled moralists would condone or even encourage coeducation, which all loyal Catholics have always recognized as contrary to natural, divine and canon law, but the plain fact is that these two victims of the so-called new morality had no business going up that hill together, without a chaperon, in the first place. Many of the sisters (?) teaching at that school are wearing secular dress. It is a sad story repeated so often these days.

Perfect.

And close readers of America may recognize the cautious tone and editorial strategy that Blake summoned for his parody of our august publication:

The inability of experts to agree on a definition of “hill” that will illuminate all the murky regions of this intricate question should slow down those spokesmen who have already leapt to one conclusion too many in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court should hand down a ruling in the next session and at that time thinking observers will have something to react against. Until that time, as Chesterton says, we will have to raise the question and adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

Ouch. That’s gonna leave a mark. Well, as every writer knows: If you can’t laugh at yourself, someone else will always be willing to do it for you.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Brotherhood,” by Leath Tonino. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We will be reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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